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Eight-year-old Theo sat quietly in the Surgery Center at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital Stanford, clutching his stuffed dinosaur and listening as a child life specialist gently explained the procedures he would have that day. Tears filled his eyes when he learned that his mom wouldn’t be able to be with him.  

That’s when Tom Caruso, MD, MEd, pediatric anesthesiologist and co-director of the Stanford Chariot Program, and colleague Michelle Zuniga arrived. Using immersive technologies like virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR), and smart projectors, Chariot reduces pain and anxiety, and improves the patient experience. They brought Theo a headset outfitted with AR.  

“They asked Theo if he wanted to try it, promising that he would still be able to see me the whole time,” Theo’s mom, Rachel, recalls. Theo agreed and quickly immersed himself in an episode of VeggieTales.  

“After a few minutes, they told Theo he could wear the headset into surgery. He said goodbye to me and was literally giggling as he watched his show while being wheeled away,” Rachel says.  

The headset’s design allowed for the anesthesia mask to be placed over Theo’s nose without interrupting his viewing experience. Theo fell asleep watching his show and talking to his care team.  

“Theo has had several ear tube surgeries in the past and always needed Versed [a medicine that helps kids relax],” Rachel explains. “Yesterday he didn’t! And he left me in good spirits. As a parent, it was such a gift. I was worried about a lot of things yesterday, but Theo’s emotional well-being was not one of them.”  

Immersive technology is an effective option to help calm and distract patients for routine and complex procedures, and a growing body of research suggests it helps reduce fear, anxiety, and pain. Created by Caruso and Sam Rodriguez, MD, the Chariot Program is one of the largest pediatric immersive technology programs in the country, and other hospitals have sought their expertise on adopting the technology to enhance patient care.  

Theo and Rachel’s experience would not have been possible without the generous support of donors including the Association of Auxiliaries for Children Endowment, Magic Leap, and The Traverse Foundation. Thank you for making a difference for families like theirs!  

Sally J. Clasen contributed to this story.